Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Science Funding

I’m a scientist by training, a physicist in fact, the one science to rule them all, as some (well physicists anyway) might call it.

The last week has seen a couple of stories relating to science funding that I’ve found very disappointing. Firstly there was news that specifically physics funding would be cut by at least £115m resulting in cancellations in the area of astronomy and nuclear and particle physics as well as a 25% cut in the grants available for fellowships and PhDs.

Some of the largest cuts appear to be in Nuclear physics, where a 52% cut in funding is going to force our physicsts to withdraw from major international projects (no doubt including the ITER replacement for JET, the next generation nuclear fusion reactor experiments, and leave us with a lack of trained nuclear physcists despite promises to build new fission reactors for energy.

Cutting phsyics funding is like stopping the heart of science, physics provides us with an understanding of the underlying principles of every other science. Yes much of it lacks a real world application, but the equipment and technology developed by projects such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and other physics programmes often make a real difference to society and technology. However there is also a lot of physics like the area of nuclear physics that is vital to the world’s future energy security, or like the area of quantum mechanics vital to the future development of computing technology.

But it’s not just been scientific funding cuts, the way university research is funded is also changing. The government is about to introduce something called the Research Excellence Framework, whereby a quarter of all research funding will depend on the social, public policy, cultural and quality of life” impact of their research. This is ridiculous, scientific research is scientific research, there are thousands of examples of discoveries that occurred in research that wasn’t looking to improve humanity’s lot, just to improve it’s knowledge.

This kind of policy will just lead to an increase in funding for social sciences, research that support government policy, or to an entirely new focused area. It will no doubt also lead to a large number of people forcing their scientific research to be related to climate change (I’m interested in the mating habits of butterflies say, so I title my research proposal the affects of a changing climate on the mating habits of butterflies), the current “hot topic” in science.

It is perhaps telling of Gordon Brown’s interest in science that it was only in February of this year when he delivered his first speech in relation to it and apparently stated “The downturn is no time to slow down our investment in science but to build more vigorously for the future.” A great soundbite, but it hardly seems to have been backed up by action.

The problem is that modern science isn’t cheap and it isn’t easy to understand. ITER for example will cost at least 5 billion euros but will lead to an entirely new and potentially clean way of generating energy. It’s efficency will make wind, solar and other green sources look pathetic, it is after all the same energy source that powers the sun that creates wind and solar energy in the first place. We’ve spent billions to bail out banks and to try to stop climate change, why aren’t we investing money into projects like this and other pure scientific research that could, and in fact will, produce the technologies of tomorrow.

Or look at the work of particle physicists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Cern, ground breaking work that has been reduced to a search for the “God Particle” or if you believe some people an experiment that will create a black hole that will destroy the universe. The general public, and indeed politicians can’t understand science so can’t see the value in it. Even the current Minister of State for Science and Innovation isn’t a scientist he has a PhD in robotics and a degree in production engineering. His previous company may have manufactured vaccines, but at the end of the day he’s an engineer not a pure scientist.

In all I think science is being severely short changed by both the funding cuts and the change in funding priorities. In reality the cost of our science funding is tiny, the physics research funding programme is 2.4 billion pounds over 5 years, so £480 million a year. To put that in perspective Tesco’s profits last year were £3billion, Tesco made more  profit  in one year than we will spend on science in five. In fact Tesco’s sales topped £1 billion a week, so more money went through its tills in 3 weeks than we will spend on physics in five years. Or you can look at it this way as a nation will have spent more money on groceries in one super market by January 3rd than we will be spending on physics in the whole year.

That truly is a terrifying statistic, but perhaps it shows where scientific funding will end up under this government, the purview purely of companies or wealthy patrons, research that is aimed at achieving a goal or objective, the end of pure research.

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